When oil started pumping from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay field on 20 June 1977, estimates pointed to a 30-year production life span with potential for 9.6 billion barrels. In fact, Prudhoe Bay has proved to be the most productive US oil field to date, generating more than 12.5 billion barrels in four decades. To mark the production anniversary, meet two staff who have made their careers on the surprisingly flat, North Slope
Four decades ago, the first oil that was pumped from the North Slope of Alaska started flowing down a pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez. That inaugural barrel of oil was the result of work that had begun much earlier when hydrocarbons were discovered. BP began working in Alaska in 1959, started drilling at the massive Prudhoe Bay oil field in 1968 and helped build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in the mid-1970s. Since Prudhoe Bay began production in June 1977, it has generated more than 12 billion barrels of oil - far exceeding initial projections - thanks in part to enhanced oil recovery technologies that BP pioneered. Four decades after starting up, Prudhoe Bay remains one of North America’s largest oil fields.
The flat, frozen 'Slope'
All of the facilities supporting oil production are located in a 312 square-mile (or 800+ square-kilometre) footprint at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, a flat land that extends 88,000 square miles (227,919 square kilometres) from the foothills of the Brooks Mountain Range to the Arctic Ocean. The tundra thaws each year but the subsurface remains frozen year-round. Buildings are erected on stilts to keep the ground from thawing and turning into mush.
Did you know?
BP owns the largest share of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which carries crude oil 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. It passes across three mountain ranges, 34 major rivers and streams, and nearly 500 smaller water crossings.
The vast majority of people who visit the Slope arrive by specially chartered airliners that are operated by energy companies, although there is a road connection used by trucks - or the occasional tourist - bringing supplies from the south.
Weather at the North Slope ranges from cold to extremely cold. The average low temperature in January is – 31 degrees Celsius (°C), with average ‘summer’ highs in July of just 12°C. Fog frequently blankets the area making it difficult to see where the land ends and the sky begins.
The people who were the original North Slope pioneers were charting new territory in working and living in a polar environment and now, some 40 years later, many of them are still there.
‘It was the place I wanted to be’ - Shirl Shannon, control of work advisor
“I’m from a poor neighbourhood in Chicago and I joined the army after leaving high school and was assigned to Alaska. When I finished my service, I decided to stay and go to Anchorage Community College. I didn’t think Alaska was much colder than Chicago so I had no problem adjusting to the weather. I had done very well in math back in Chicago, when vacuum tube technology was at the ‘cutting edge’ of electronics. By the time I got to Alaska things had changed and it was integrated circuits and chips. I wanted to learn that technology. While I was in school, one of the professors told me, ‘You need to work on the Slope.’ I really didn’t know what the “Slope” was, but I soon found out - and applied for a job in 1980. When I went up to interview with ARCO, I was really impressed with what I saw. I liked the financial and technical growth opportunities together with the work schedule.
After my first visit to the Slope I knew I could do the job as an instrumentation technician and after being in the army, I was well equipped to work in a remote, predominantly male environment. I received encouragement from the technicians I met; I felt like a part of the team although I was not even hired yet. I thought it was the place where I wanted to be.
My first job was in instrumentation and I worked my way up from the beginner’s trainer programme to being one of the highest-ranked technicians.
Being a black female in maintenance and instrumentation, that was rare. In those days, it was more common to be a cook, a nurse or a secretary.
When I first started on the Slope it was one week on and one week off. That was normal for the industry, but unusual for others who are working Monday through Friday. I still do the same shift. You get to see your relatives and friends for half the year and the other half, not at all. But, I love the work schedule because of the freedom it provides for travelling, doing chores and enjoying my family. As for the notorious weather conditions, we always tried to minimize the time spent outdoors, and everybody looked out for each other. When I look back on nearly 40 years in Alaska, I know the North Slope really changed the course of my life. My mom was always telling me to make something of myself. My professor told me to get into what he described as a 'man's field' because of my high math scores. It was like I was being groomed to be where I am right now. They believed in me and saw something in me - and I believed in myself."
Fast facts: BP in Alaska
barrels per day gross production from Prudhoe Bay in 2016, less than 1% decline from the previous year
BP Alaska employees, with 16,200 jobs supported state-wide by BP's activities in 2016
donations in community investment to hundreds of Alaskan community organisations in 2016
'We take real pride in what we do up here’ - Randy Burdick, infrastructure team leader
“My dad was in the oil business and we lived all over the west – Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota – and when I was 10-years-old we moved to Alaska. After graduating high school, I went to trade school and then got a job with BP heritage company, ARCO, as a waste water operator on the Slope. There were no big facilities in place at that time and I watched as the first sea lifts carrying buildings, equipment and other essential infrastructure came in and the camps were set up. From that point on, it just kept expanding.
All the energy companies and contractors setting up shop on the North Slope had little experience at operating in such a cold climate. We had to find lubricants that would not freeze and come up with the safest and most efficient ways to work in the cold. So, it was all about living and learning. There is no other place in the world like this. There are no trees but we do have abundant wildlife, we have many birds in the summer and the caribou also migrate through here. And, of course, we have the bears, both brown and polar. Signs remind us of their presence around all the facilities, but in the four decades that people have worked here, there have been no reported injuries from any encounters with bears. My responsibilities then, and now, involved the operation of the accommodation camps and all their related facilities. It is called logistics and infrastructure and I have enjoyed it.
Quite a bit has changed since those early days. When I got here, we didn't have computers, cell phones, or e-mail, of course. There was a lot of face-to-face communication.
When the first barrel of oil moved down the Alaskan pipeline to the port of Valdez, there was a genuine sense of achievement felt by all of us here and that feeling of accomplishment is still alive today. We take real pride in what we do up here: it is about producing energy safely. I have spent my entire adult life working on the Slope and I plan to remain for a few more years. I’m not 60 yet. We have a lot of new technology here, and we are seeing the next generation of work force come in, and that's exciting."